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The Lonely World of Family Life

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The longer Sarah Menkedick lived in the U.S., the more aware she became of its kid culture. Writing for Aeon, Menkedick shows Mexico’s contrasting framework: it’s not strange to bring your children to a bar or a late-night parade, where the whole community is in the fray. The U.S., on the other hand, creates designated places for children — museums, playgrounds, family restaurants. Families are supposed to frequent these even if they can’t stand the children in various stages of overload and meltdown, chucking gooey Teddy Grahams crackers from their strollers.

Although there are many benefits to a society with a distinct family-friendly culture, Menkedick argues that separating family from community life is not one of them.

Kid culture fully subscribes to the idea that children need to inhabit a world unto themselves that has been carefully organised and constructed by adults; that their childhood must be meticulously cultivated in a Petri dish of intentional experiences; that their growth into healthy and happy human beings is contingent upon the number of hours they spend navigating climbing walls or scooping trays of ice into buckets; that ‘good’ parents will rearrange their entire lives to create opportunities for their kids to sit on the grass and watch a librarian act out the story of Hansel and Gretel with finger puppets; that ‘family life’ means doing something targeted specifically or exclusively toward children. It’s the idea that to become a parent is to forfeit citizenship of a larger culture, reinforced by the sly, ubiquitous US capitalist pressure to consume and experience one’s way through a competitive childhood.

The more elaborate excesses of kid culture illuminate its basic paradox. Give a kid three light tables’ worth of coloured sand and half a dozen glowing lightsabers, and she’ll end up cross-legged on the floor studying a tuft of lint. Even the 19th-century reformers in Chicago fretted that kids ‘do not know how to play’. Teachers from Hull House – a settlement house in Chicago for newly arrived European immigrants – would go to playgrounds to instruct children in good, hearty, organised American games such as ring-around-a-rosy, but the children preferred to roughhouse, build massive improvised structures, and hurl themselves around on the swings. Some even dug holes under the fence to the playground.

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Scrap the To Do Lists

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Like many people, Laurie Penny grew up with the concept that success is achieved through hard work. As she writes for Wired, this attitude — combined with the body’s physiological inclination to respond to threats with agitated alertness — has made productiveness the metric of choice for coping with the “clusterfuck of the Corona Crisis.” However, productivity does not provide a solution to this plight. This isn’t happening because you didn’t work hard enough, and it won’t be fixed by optimizing your morning routines and adopting a can-do attitude. In fact, this is a crisis that could overturn the whole social order. So, even though most of us are desperate to feel normal, we should give ourselves a break and stop trying to self-optimize to the background noise of roommates, kids, and our inner critics.

Right through the white-knuckle ride of my twenties and beyond, I clung to work as a way of protecting myself when I was scared, when I was hurt, when the future seemed to collapse on itself like a stack of marked cards. No matter how many marches I go to, there is some part of me that believes that if I can only self-optimize a bit harder then the world will right itself, no one I love will suffer, and death will have no dominion. So when the coronavirus crisis began, I started writing myself ambitious to-do lists on giant sticky notes—because when every cultural certainty starts collapsing in my hands like wet cake, writing ambitious to-do lists is how I calm down.

I would exercise in the mornings and write in the evenings. I would cook. I would sort out my finances. By week three, I would finally finish my book. I would organize my time so I had no time to feel any emotion other than manageable, everyday anxiety about my workload, with occasional breaks for feeling appropriately grateful that I still have a job I can do from home. Unfortunately, somewhere between writing those to-do lists and watching overpromoted incompetents invite their voters to kindly die to keep the economy going in the manner to which it has become accustomed, the entire concept of linear time seemed to disintegrate, which really played havoc with my calendar.

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The Streaming Service of the Moment

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Disney launched its new service, Disney+, on March 24th, the same day as the lockdown began in the United Kingdom. As Sophie Elmhirst wryly notes in her piece for The Guardian, the launch falling upon the day that 66 million were told to stay at home for 23 hours a day, must have resulted in “a quiet elbow bump in a meeting room, perhaps.” Elmhirst herself was quick to sign up in the service as a source of her entertainment for her children. 

Maybe it didn’t feel like that for everyone. Maybe the parents who secretly love the home schooling vibe, the timetables and worksheets, the children sitting happily at kitchen tables, tongues sticking out of the side of their mouths as they complete little astronomy quizzes while the parent stirs a healthy stew, maybe they didn’t sign up for Disney+ a full week before it launched. For the rest of us, hurling fish fingers into the oven with one hand while trying to tap out a piece of work with the other and break up a fight with a toe, the relatively low cost of a Disney+ subscription (£5.99 a month) when contemplating the long, long, just so very long, period of time ahead of us, felt like a sensible investment.

Rewatching the old classics, Elmhirst soon realizes that she signed up for the service for herself just as much as for her children. In times of uncertainty, there is comfort in the familiar.

During that seventh Bolt viewing, I realized why the kids wanted to keep watching the same movie over and over again. There’s the expert appreciation for a fine piece of computer animation, no doubt, but there’s also the deep comfort to be found in repeat viewing. Even multiple screenings in, they both covered their eyes in terror during a chase scene. The fear was real, but it was that pleasurable kind of fear you know will pass. There’s no uncertainty, no risk. You know, for a fact, that everything will be OK. It’s fear with a happy ending.

Despite the current crisis Disney probably will indeed be OK. However, it’s current reality is very different from its normal fairytale image. 

Rightly, the company isn’t high on anyone’s worry list. But it’s striking how far the current reality of Disney is from its well-tended corporate image. In late March, various news outlets published pictures of Disney’s closed theme parks – empty car parks, rollercoasters, cafes, golf courses, and a lonely-looking Millennium Falcon at Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge. The photographs are somehow more sinister than those of empty cities that have been doing the rounds. Cities, at the best of times, are conflicted and messy, beautiful, and cruel. They rarely pretend to be anything they’re not, unless there’s an Olympics going on.

Disney, on the other hand, is always pretending to be something it’s not: it is a highly efficient profit machine that presents itself as a place where a merry band of misfits conjure happiness.

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When Time Costs Too Much

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In the U.S., 25 percent of working mothers return to work within two weeks of giving birth — with the financial math of staying home just not adding up. In her piece for Wealthsimple, Karen Russell explores the constant calculations she is making as both a writer and a mother, where “every minute with her kids is work lost, and each minute writing subtracts from precious, un-price-able joy.” With no universal health or child care, many new mothers feel a “low ceiling of dread” around balancing the necessity of work with having children. The result is that the luxuries of time and creativity are often lost: “If you’re afraid that you can’t pay rent, or buy groceries for your family, there is no surplus energy to burn inside a dream.” 

On a daycare morning, like this one, I think about my toddler son near constantly. I worry that my writing days have an emotional cost to him that I sometimes project to be very high, and always pray will be offset by what he gains, also incalculable at this early hour, by attending a good daycare. What I can tally to the penny is the actual dollar cost to our family: $1,200 a month, $300 a week, $100 a day. When I fixate on this math, I begin to have the panicked sense that I gave up time with my son to delete three paragraphs; suddenly writing badly feels like stealing from him. This is obviously not a healthy way to approach creative work, or a pressure that yields good fiction, at least in my case.

One of my best friends is an acclaimed journalist and recently-divorced mother of a four-year-old son. As a contributing writer for the New York Times, she makes $50,000 a year and receives no benefits. Her rent for a two-bedroom apartment is $1,800 a month; the cheapest childcare she could find costs $1,200 a month. “My son is eating Doritos and watching cartoons in a basement right now,” she told me. “That’s the best I can do for him.” Her father, a machinist in Fort Lauderdale, sends her his social security checks. She is struggling to make ends meet despite writing for the most prestigious paper in the world, and is actively looking for a second job.

 

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The Consequences of Surviving

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PTSD is defined as an anxiety disorder caused by a traumatic event, or stressor, such as a natural disaster. A life-threatening illness is only considered a stressor if it involves a ‘sudden, catastrophic event’ such as waking up during surgery.

In this article for Aeon Liza Gross explores an argument put forward by Phil Wolfson, a psychiatrist in Marin County, that hearing the words “You’ve got cancer” is a catastrophic event in itself, and even when the tumors retreat, “that kind of fear stays with you.” Wolfson is campaigning for a new diagnosis: PTSD-life-threatening illness (PTSD-LTI) — to increase support both for the survivors of life-threatening illnesses, and for their carers.

Although a diagnosis can bring benefits, Cole says, ‘you are in a state of anxiety at all times.’ He can’t shake the thought that any aches and pains, normal for his 67 years, might be new signs of his body’s betrayal. Today, he practises palliative care at a hospice. He knows the patients are probably floating in space, too, needing specialised care to manage their distress.

He believes no one should leave an oncologist’s office with a cancer diagnosis without a referral to someone trained to manage the anxiety and trauma that inevitably shadows the course of treatment. But that’s not what happens. ‘As medicine advances, we have more survivors,’ Cole says. ‘That’s a good thing. But those survivors carry trauma to their graves, and we haven’t recognised that it’s a disease process that needs treatment.’

Wolfson is also an advocate for using ketamine and MDMA in the treatment of those suffering from this form of PTSD.

Therapists have long known that MDMA, outlawed in 1985 as having no medical use and a high potential for abuse, melts defences and eases anxieties while boosting mood and trust – key ingredients for successful therapy. The drug works partly by dissipating the crippling fear that prevents people from revisiting a trauma, a necessary step in learning how to live with it. ‘It opens the doors of the heart and removes some of the blocks to feeling and suppression,’ Wolfson says, making it easier to tolerate deeply distressing memories and emotions.

Feeling unburdened, Wolfson’s patients were willing to plumb the depths of their psychic pain in profound ways, looking at how the disease disrupted their lives, self-worth, and personal and professional interactions. Their ability to confront their worst fears helped Wolfson chart a therapeutic path to ease their suffering and anxiety.

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Is the Weekly Shop Good For You?

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Grocery stores around the world are in a race to bring food shopping into the digital era — the Food Marketing Institute predicts that 70 percent of US consumers will be getting at least some of their groceries online within the next four years. As Corey Mintz writes for The Walrus, what is less clear is what ripple effects this will have on “our daily lives, our communities, our health, and our workforces.” 

My local grocer, Potsothy “Pots” Sallapa, upon hearing of my engagement, insisted that we hold the wedding in his shop. My fiancée thought it sounded crazy at first—I remember her saying something about not wanting our photos to feature a stack of ­cereal boxes. But the store was a cozy place and near the apartment we shared at the time, and she agreed to at least give it a look with fresh eyes. As we toured the high-ceilinged, wood-beamed store, among Saturday-morning crowds stocking up on grapes and granola, I could see on her face that this wasn’t just a place people went to acquire toilet paper: it was a community hub. A few months later, we walked down the store’s central aisle and got married between the cash register, the root-vegetable table, a group of our friends and family, and a display of maple syrup.

There is something fundamentally important about analog shopping — getting out of the house, choosing what you want to purchase, finding new things to buy and “even the game of choosing the right checkout aisle, the one with the fastest cashier.”

One problem with all this progress is that, while other human beings can be annoying—clipping our nails on the subway, calling instead of texting, disrespecting the unwritten rule that the middle seat on a plane gets armrest preference—we need one another. Research suggests that even low-level social interactions—the kinds we have with our neighbours and mail carriers and local storeowners—form bonds known as “weak ties.” These connections have been shown to improve physical and mental health and to help reduce loneliness. “Even social interactions with the more peripheral members of our social networks contribute to our well-being,” concludes one 2014 study of weak ties—an important finding as rates of self-reported loneliness grow. More than a third of Americans over forty-five feel lonely, a 2018 study found. While some of this has been attributed to changing family dynamics (we get married later and less often than we used to, and we have fewer children), casual opportunities for social interaction, like those found when buying food, are a part of preventing isolation as well.

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Detective Fitbit

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The personal activity-tracking device, Fitbit, has become increasingly popular since it was first released in 2009. It was therefore only a matter of time until one would be worn by victims or suspects of crimes — and potentially be the key to finding out what had actually occurred. As Lauren Smiley explains for Wired, people are inadvertently wearing “a sort of black box for the body that reveals physiological truths that its wearer might prefer to conceal.”

At 90 years old, Tony Aiello was arrested for the murder of his stepdaughter, Karen Navarra. On the day of her death, Tony dropped by her house with a surprise treat of biscotti and pizza. He claimed she was alive when he left. Her Fitbit told a different story.

At a San Jose police station, Tony was hauled into a homicide interrogation room. “What the hell am I doing here?” he asked detectives Brian Meeker and Mike Montonye. Then he waived his right to remain silent and amiably rattled off his life history and answered questions about Karen, until one detective abruptly shifted the subject: Did Tony know what a Fitbit was? He shook his head. They told him that it was a watch with a step counter built into it. “Oh, nice,” Tony marveled, not seeing where the questioning was going. It also has a heart rate monitor, they said. “Oh, that’s better yet.”

The detectives continued: The data shows that Karen’s heart stopped at 3:28 pm, they told Tony. What’s more, they knew Tony was there at the time.

“Oh, no,” Tony said. “She was alive when I left.”

Should we be using Fitbit information in court cases? There are still no set legal standards for how and when this new type of data should be admitted. There are also no guarantees it can be relied on.

Smartwatches decipher heart rate using green LEDs that beam hundreds of times per second into capillaries through the skin. Those capillaries allow in more of the light when full of blood, and less between beats, and the device measures how much light is absorbed. That measurement is then siphoned through a proprietary algorithm to generate a heart rate figure. University of Wisconsin researchers looked at how well wrist-worn fitness trackers measured heart rate, comparing it to an electrocardiograph, the gold standard for heart monitoring. They found that the fitness trackers’ heart rate deviated more from the actual rate when a subject exercised on a treadmill than when at rest. (Fitbit won’t talk specifics about its accuracy, saying in a statement, “We are confident in the performance of all our devices” and that the company continues to test them.)

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Making Periods Green To Topple Tampax

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With 4.5 billion boxes of Tampax sold worldwide last year, the brand is so well known, it’s almost a synonym for tampons. But recently some up and comers have been trying to edge the giant out of the lucrative period market. As  Sophie Elmhirst writes for The Guardian “the common strategy is to offer more ethical and ecological options to replace Tampax’s simple single-use plastic applicators and a marketing strategy that often emphasizes discretion, as though a period should be something to hide.”

“You’ll love the Quiet Easy Reseal Wrapper,” goes the current marketing blurb for Tampax Radiant. As a narrative, it seems increasingly at odds with the times. Why should we hide tampons up our sleeves on the way to the bathroom, or worry that someone might hear us unwrap one once we’re there? (In a recent Saturday Night Live sketch, Phoebe Waller Bridge riffed on all the possible items – a copy of Mein Kampf, a neatly folded Confederate flag, a dog shit – within which you could more acceptably conceal a tampon and its associated deep shame.) 

Tampax has had to play catch-up. In such moments, multinationals can resemble the I’m-your-mate teacher with a tone-deaf enthusiasm for trends to which they are fatally late. (Women’s empowerment and period pride are in, you say? We’ll see you there, just after we’ve intensely focus-grouped the issue and come up with a hashtag.) 

As period startups multiply, so do the number of options, from organic cotton tampons, to absorbent pants, to a reusable applicator, to a “pain-relieving, CBD-infused, biodegradable cotton tampon.” Although the truth is a Swiss manufacturing firm called Ruggli has a near-monopoly on tampon-making machines, so almost every new tampon, is in fact, a  Ruggli tampon. 

The harsh reality remains that most startups will fail, and in order to have a chance against the global force that is Tampax, these new companies will have to diversify their products away from just the mighty tampon.

Many of the new brands look to the future of their customers, too, and the fact that they will not always have periods. The menopause approaches, another area of women’s health previously shrink-wrapped in shame but now becoming commercially ripe. Following the menstrual example, the menopause is now undergoing its own cultural rebranding. Multiple books have been written (The Good Menopause Guide, Confessions of a Menopausal Woman, Making Friends With the Menopause, and so on); Mariella Frostrup made a BBC documentary; Gwyneth Paltrow made a Goop video. “I don’t think we have in our society a great example of an aspirational menopausal woman,” said Paltrow, presumably nominating herself, the high priestess of expensive aspiration, for the job.

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Closing the Loop on Diabetes

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Writing for The Walrus, lifelong diabetic Jonathan Garfinkel explores a world where the hackers, not the scientists, are forging ahead with advances in diabetes management.

Monitoring Type One diabetes is a full-time job — a constant juggling act of how much insulin to take when blood glucose goes too high, and how much sugar to consume when it goes too low. A misjudgment means feeling terrible, slipping into a coma, or even dying. Essentially, a diabetic has to manually do the job normally performed by a pancreas — but some ingenious coding has created a shortcut on the road to creating an “artificial pancreas.”

“Artificial pancreas” isn’t a term I’d heard before. I ask Riddell to explain. “So, you have your insulin pump and your continuous glucose monitor,” he says. “Great technology. But these devices don’t talk to each other. You’re the one who’s still making the decisions. You have to interpret the numbers, analyze the trends, predict what you’ll be doing later in the day, and figure out how much insulin to take. What if a computer could do that for you?”

…a few years ago, a group of amateur coders, most of them type one themselves, were independently fiddling around with insulin pumps and CGM transmitters on their off hours, looking for ways to improve the devices. They eventually met, pooled their discoveries, and after a few more years of tinkering, created an iPhone program called Loop. It’s not available in the App Store or through any official channels—no doctors will prescribe it. Users need to find the instructions online and build the Loop app themselves. This bit of free code, Farnsworth tells me, paired with a hacked-together insulin pump and CGM, is an artificial pancreas.

“Is this legal?” I ask, imagining some dark alley where hooded hackers hand out instructions and tiny radios to desperate diabetics.

“Of course,” Farnsworth says, laughing. “It’s open-source software. It’s also a Facebook group. You can find everything you need online.”

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The Adaptation of Language Evolution

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Your speech, or thine speech as Shakespeare would have said, has evolved with each generation that preceded you. The bubbling melting pot of language absorbs new influences with alacrity. Every time we repeatedly interact with people, we have the chance to develop a shared vocabulary. In The Walrus Gretchen McCulloch explores whether the language mix is changing faster as a result of technology. People interacting on social media often end up using similar phrases, yet we tend to follow others with the same interests, with words jumping around between demographically similar cities, regardless of geography. It’s not a surprise, therefore, that Twitter, where you’re encouraged to follow people you don’t already know, has given rise to the most linguistic innovation. And other factors, such as community and gender, are still playing a part.

Young women are also consistently on the bleeding edge of those linguistic changes that periodically sweep through media trend sections, from uptalk (the distinctive rising intonation at the end of sentences?) to the use of “like” to introduce a quotation (“And then I was like, ‘Innovation’”). The role that young women play as language disruptors is so clearly established at this point that it’s practically boring to linguists who study this topic: well-known sociolinguist William Labov estimated that women lead 90 percent of linguistic change in a paper he wrote in 1990. (I’ve attended more than a few talks at sociolinguistics conferences about a particular change in vowels or vocabulary, and it barely gets even a full sentence of explanation: “And here, as expected, we can see that the women are more advanced on this change than the men. Next slide.”) Men tend to follow a generation later: in other words, women tend to learn language from their peers; men learn it from their mothers.

McCulloch also delves into some innovative ways past linguists have studied language.

The fieldworker he selected was a grocer named Edmond Edmont, who reportedly had a particularly astute ear (it’s not clear whether this referred to the acuity of his hearing or his attention to phonetic detail, but either way, it got him the job). Gilliéron trained Edmont in phonetic notation and sent him off on a bicycle with a list of 1,500 questions, such as, “What do you call a cup?” and “How do you say the number fifty?” Over the next four years, Edmont cycled to 639 French villages, sending results back to Gilliéron periodically. In each village, he interviewed an older person who had lived in the region for their entire life, counting them as representative of the history of the area.

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